Black Music Month Day #14
Rejoice and Shout (2010)
Director Don McGlynn
Begins June 24 ,2011 Ritz at the Bourse, Philadelphia
Rejoice and Shout opens with a showstopper. A young, adorable brown skin girl sitting in a church pew, lovingly cloistered by many of her mostly female family members, sings “Amazing Grace” with a conviction
and poise of someone twenty years her senior. As she croons, head tilted, eyes closed, the smiles and rapt gazes of her family beam rays of warm sunshine-praise in her direction. She has theirs and the camera’s attention, and she knows what to do with it. She’s been here before. The film’s audience this sneak preview night—mostly African Americans from eight to eighty and probably with much simpatico for the feeling being generated on screen—offers up sacrifices of warm, subdued, communal, affirmation—moans, chuckles, “yes,” and “well.” As these sounds zigzag through the theater like a sprite, we’re drawn in. We’re connected. We are one.
I’m no expert in the capacities of the inner lives of children. But there was so much “living” expressed in small one’s rendition, the “feeling-full-ness,” the level of depth in her vocalized expression so profound, that your first reaction is to question. How? With no reasonable and “natural” explanation at hand, one turns to the mysterious, the ineffable, to the heavenly. This documentary on the history of gospel music turns on this very premise: on the power of African-American gospel singing practices to affirm belief in the unseen, to have faith in the seemingly impossible.
“Little mama’s” prodigious gospel singing was drenched with much of what put this singing practice on the map: slides, bent notes, subtle turns on the “blue notes” of the scale, tasteful melismas constituting crafty embellishments on the original melody, and a dramatic sense of how to use dynamics to shape the emotional contour of a phrase. And not to mention a most important ideal that we see in virtually all of the singers
profiled in this film: an “aesthetic of the cool,” a cultural priority detailed by scholar Robert Farris Thompson describing an African-derived standard of composure maintained by performers, especially in ecstatic or “trancing” ritual events.
The strength of Rejoice and Shout leans heavily on precious archival footage. Organized chronologically, it spans the entire twentieth century-plus more. There’s so much to enjoy here. As other reviewers have pointed out, the film lingers on the music itself, mostly live performance events that allow the viewer to take the same ride that contemporaneous audiences did. The examples are so long, in fact, that at key points Rejoice and Shout feels like a concert film—Woodstock and WattStax come to mind. There was a good reason for this decision. A core aesthetic and functional priority in gospel music performance is the establishment of a spiritual, communal, and cultural connection with listeners. As call and response permeates every architectural level of the sound event—between the lead and background singers, between the musicians and the singers, between the audience and the performers—the song becomes more than a composition. It serves as a model for community building in real time. Indeed, all this “making” takes time; and as the bodily interactions among the performers teach us, it takes some space and stunning microphone technique, too.
In performance after performance by Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Mississippi, the Clara Ward Singers, the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Rosetta Tharpe, Shirley Caeser, James Cleveland, Andre Crouch and more, the film shows how gospel as a genre, has always balanced—sometimes daringly so—historical time-honored praxis with up-to-the-minute engagement with contemporary sounds. This film touches on this idea but without pushing an important point: these performers were highly influential to the realm of secular music as their techniques often shaped the aesthetic choices of the music industry at large.
As documentary filmmakers know, if you can land someone like icon Smokey Robinson as a talking head, audiences will relate, funders will respond, and theaters will be more inclined to pick you up. We learn of Robinson’s abiding faith, how the physical manifestations of the Holy Ghost spooked him as a kid, and of his emphatic defense of young gospel musicians who do what innovator Thomas Dorsey did with the blues in the 1930s: respond to all musical stimuli to craft an original voice. Mavis Staples and others “who were there” offer similar insights into their faith and specific recollections of eras past.
But for all the beauty of this film and for all of the charismatic performances to which we are treated, in some ways it was a teaser, this despite its Herculean attempt to present a full chronological sweep. It would have been great to learn, for example, the degree to which gospel music influenced Smokey Robinson’s compositional approach. He was one of the most influential and prolific songwriters of his day. What did he learn musically from gospel?
I’ve already mentioned the rewards in viewing the fascinating performances played at-length. (They really are gems). What about the world in which these aesthetic objects circulated? Gospel is also a business, one that could be just as exploitative as the secular industry. In fact, many of these artists recorded on small labels that were not gospel specific. The gospel highway was a rough ride for many; more of this struggle as a labor practice could have only enhanced our appreciation for what these artists achieved in a context beyond “faith.” Show me the money.
Furthermore, gospel music practice is not only singing but also an instrumental practice. The musicians, often thanklessly, played hour after hour of services, packed up their instruments and took to the road not only to spread the good news but to feed families as well in an underground cash economy. Their work, always heard and felt but rarely focused on, deserves consideration.
Delving more deeply into the on-the-ground practicalities of social life, one had a veritable field day trying to parse through the codes and visual cues of coupling conventions in the film. Viewers, for example, were left to only ponder what the nature of the relationship was with the woman who Rosetta Tharpe “picked up” as a lifelong traveling companion. When we learn that the way-past-grown Clara Ward would have any potential romantic relationship blocked by her overbearing mother and then witness she and her group move up one of those shouting church bumpers, you can’t help but wonder what happens to all that explosive sensual energy when she leaves church and puts down the tambourine, what with mama tenaciously blocking the men. Readers, trust me, this observation only makes sense when you see this for yourself. At one point, the Ward singers suddenly hike up their elegant gowns above their knees and move into a high gear Holy dance that looks like a cross between the River Dance, a syncopated Can-Can, and a reverse Running Man. Tina Turner, sit down. I could go on about the open secrets about sexuality that abound in the gospel world, none of which are tackled in the film, but you get my point. Another film, another commentary.
We learn at the end that the young virtuoso in our opening belongs to a dynamic family gospel group whose music is used to represent the most contemporary extension of this tradition. After traversing a century-plus of music, we get the deep sense of awe and pride she inspires in her family; we understand our perceptions of her powers. We hear in her voice the historical traces of a tradition that became an anchor for a people who have struggled for social, economic, and political equality. The elements present in her performance practice have through social practice become key symbols of not just aesthetic beauty but of struggle, of hope, of victory. It symbolizes, to quote a classic gospel song, how we got over.